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When Thirty-One Gifts Independent Director Lisa Sloan enrolled in DSEF’s Direct Selling Entrepreneur Program at Cayuga Community College last fall, she had a team of two and looked at her direct selling venture as a hobby. Today, eight months after participating in the pilot phase of the 30-hour course, her perception has changed. “You know what? I’m an entrepreneur now,” Lisa says. “I remember sitting in that class and having a ‘wow’ moment. ‘I’m a professional. This is a business.’ I have carried back that excitement from the class to my team (which now numbers 50) and they are all feeling like entrepreneurs now.”
This fall, community college classrooms across the country will have the opportunity to help direct sellers like Lisa unleash their inner entrepreneurs.
The Direct Selling Entrepreneur Program (DSEP), a 10-module, non-credit course, focuses on the entrepreneurial skills that are both universal to small businesses and specific to direct selling. Its aim is to build the business skills of direct sellers by introducing them to the fundamental components of small business management and entrepreneurship, including marketing, finance, legal issues, planning and ethical business practices.
The course was developed in partnership with the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE)—an organization dedicated to helping community colleges nationwide link their traditional role of workforce development with entrepreneurship—and represents DSEF’s years of relationship-building and trusted programming. NACCE only aligns itself with organizations that share its commitment to teaching ethical entrepreneurship, and in April 2010 it approached DSEF with a proposal to create a direct selling curriculum.
“NACCE was hearing from its members—instructors of entrepreneurship—that direct sellers were coming to them asking for entrepreneurship classes,” says DSEF Program Director Robin Diamond. “And NACCE said ‘We really don’t have the right thing for them. We feel like there is an opportunity here.’ So the request bubbled up from the market; there was a groundswell because the economy had changed. People needed options and opportunities.”
Robin assembled a talented group of individuals—including staff, industry executives, curriculum experts and volunteers—to take the program from an idea, through a successful pilot phase and finally to the upcoming nationwide rollout.
NACCE couldn’t be more pleased with the pilot results and the potential for future success. “I was thrilled with the outcome,” says Ron Thomas, NACCE Board Chair and President of Dakota County Technical College in Rosemount, Minn. (a pilot site for the curriculum). “I think we hit a homerun with this one. It was pretty clear when you look at a $30 billion-dollar industry, with nearly 16 million people involved in direct selling, that there was a niche. If we could help remove barriers to help make direct sellers more profitable and stay in the business longer, then we would be helping not only them but the organization and, more importantly, the entire U.S. economy. We are glad to be part of this.”
Lisa was so intent on being part of the pilot phase that she drove an hour to and from her home in Syracuse to Auburn, New York, each week to take the classes. And it paid off. “The program truly gave me confidence to be in direct sales,” she says. “It taught me time management. I was running my business 24 hours a day before, and the class taught me how to set office hours, and really helped me increase my productivity with my family, with my team, with everything.”
One of the major components of the program is its focus on ethics. For Lisa, learning how direct sellers uphold the Direct Selling Association’s Code of Ethics was a big part of her learning experience. “I had no idea what ethics even was before I took the class,” she says. “I was able to teach my team—which was only two people at the time—that direct selling could be a really positive experience if you followed the ethics rules.”
An added benefit of the program for Lisa was the relationships she built with her fellow direct sellers. “Networking wasn’t part of the curriculum, but I had the opportunity to meet other direct salespeople. We started our own Facebook group and we held each other accountable to everything we had learned in the class—and everyone has become very successful with their business since the class.”
Robin, who on behalf of the Foundation has long worked with the academic, small business and entrepreneurship communities, says the curriculum helps participants engage their inner entrepreneur. “That is a state of mind—being entrepreneurial in your work, in your life, thinking of yourself as an entrepreneur, as an innovator—that is what we are doing here. We’re helping direct sellers think of themselves as entrepreneurs and succeed at their businesses.”
Ron says whether you’re a direct seller or a small business owner, you still need the same skills. “You are going to need to know how to market, you are going to need to know how to manage your books and you’re going to need to know how to communicate with people,” he says. “So all of those learning modules are part of this program, as well as they should be for any kind of business startup.”
For Robin, the entire experience of creating the curriculum is a victory for the direct selling industry, the Foundation and the community college community. “It’s a win for community colleges to have an entrepreneurship course to offer to a new audience—direct sellers; it’s a win for the direct selling companies, their salesforces and their customers; and it’s certainly a win for DSEF—producing an entrepreneurial curriculum is a perfect example of the Foundation’s ongoing work to champion the ethical business practices not only to help direct sellers realize success, but also to develop a wider understanding of the industry among business leaders and educators.”